IOWA — If you follow politics, you’ve likely heard a lot about the upcoming Iowa caucuses — the first-in-the-nation since 1972. On February 3, Democrats in the Hawkeye State will have the first say in who they feel should take on President Donald Trump.
Every four years, a spotlight is put on Iowa and the dedicated portion of its population who commit to seeing as many presidential candidates in-person as possible. Mornings, afternoons, evenings and weekends are spent in coffee shops, at house parties, or in local venues that transform into political stages. And because Iowa is first, almost every candidate spends a lot of time there trying to win over caucusgoers in hopes of building enough momentum to continue winning in other states.
Last June, we premiered our “Battleground 2020” series that took a detailed look at the role the Midwest would play in the 2020 election.
As the New Year arrived, it became clear that chapter two was warranted — focusing in on all the attention Iowa gets in presidential election years and trying to figure out what the results of the first caucus could mean for the rest of the Heartland.
These four stories are the culmination of a week-long, 1,800-mile road trip across Iowa in early January. After speaking with Iowans from all walks of life, four topics emerged as the clear focus on their minds as they prepare to caucus: farming in the age of Trump; the confusion over health care; the urban/rural divide; and whether electability overrides policy priorities.
FARMING IN THE AGE OF TRUMP
Nestled in the gently rolling landscape of northwest Iowa is the town of Primghar. It’s home to about 900 people, including Daryl Haack.
He’s been farming corn and soybeans on his several hundred acres of land here for the last 50 years and wears more than a few leadership hats.
“I’m on the local county farm bureau board,” Haack said, as he started a list that stretched for several minutes and included, among other things, being on the board of the local ethanol plant.
“[I’m] probably missing something,” he laughed.
Haack was someone we wanted to talk to after reading this local newspaper article from last September.
Haack was quoted saying several of his staunch Republican board members “were thinking maybe not voting for our current president” because of challenges facing Iowa’s prominent ethanol industry.
“For beginning farmers that don’t have something to fall back on, it’s a crisis,” Haack said, sitting inside his warm and inviting log cabin home.
Ethanol is a renewable fuel made from corn, which a lot of Iowa farmers grow.
The government requires oil companies to blend ethanol into almost all of America’s gasoline, but smaller companies have been able to request a waiver to not mix it if they can’t afford it.
The problem is the Trump administration has been handing out waivers to pretty much any oil company — big or small — meaning a lot less corn is being purchased and some ethanol plants have closed.
“So our concern is that they will continue to do that,” Haack said. “If the only waivers they grant are the ones that are recommended to be granted by the Department of Energy, we’ll be OK. If they continue to grant waivers to whoever requests them, we’re not OK. We’re going to end up being 800 million gallons short.”
We asked if President Trump has jeopardized his support within some of his farmer base because of these waivers and how he’s treated the agriculture community overall.
“I’m kind of surprised, but I don’t think that has very much,” Haack said.
He told us problems facing farmers under this administration aren’t just limited to ethanol plants, especially because the recent trade wars have impacted everything from the dairy industry to cattle feed companies.
But despite these widespread challenges, Haack said his fellow board members — the same who considered not voting again for Trump — are standing by the president. And Haack predicted many other farmers will likely be as well.
“We aren’t one-issue voters,” he said. “We vote on a broad spectrum of issues” that includes abortion and immigration."
“The other issues outweigh the ethanol issue, is where it is,” Haack told us.
Still, many of the Democrats in the 2020 race are campaigning on returning the ethanol industry to where it was before Trump. But Haack thinks that might not be enough.
“Are voters going to hang their hat on what they’re saying, ahead of the election? I don’t know,” he said. “Do we trust them any more than we trust anybody else? I don’t know.”
Haack said conservative farmers like him remain aligned with Republican Party values and skeptical of the Democrats’ pitches, even though the current Republican president’s agriculture policies are causing them trouble.
We asked if he thinks the Trump administration is listening and understands the trickle-down effect these policies may have.
“I think they understand it,” Haack said. “I think it’s a political game.”
He added, “All we really want is an open market. We want a chance to sell our product.”
THE CONFUSION OVER HEALTH CARE
A handwritten sign welcomes you into the family medical clinic Doctor Glenn Hurst has run for the last decade in Minden, a cozy community in western Iowa.
He’s the only physician and medical specialist in the area. His patients range from locals in this 600-person town to neighbors in the 60,000-person city of Council Bluffs — and they all have concerns about accessing health care.
“In an urban setting, that’s about which health insurance product can I get?” Hurst said. “In the rural setting, it’s about: are we even going to have a doctor in our community?”
Sitting inside a small examination room in the clinic, we asked Hurst how many people are basing who they’re going to caucus for off of health care this time around.
“It goes back to your rural/urban question a little bit,” Hurst said. “In the rural setting, health care is a huge issue. Again, it’s not just about what product can I get? It’s about, am I going to get any health care at all? In the urban setting, I see less emphasis on health care. Maybe more emphasis on climate or emphasis on the economy.”
Hurst also happens to be a politically active Democrat — in a county that voted for President Trump.
“Well, we’ve lost patients at the clinic because of my politics,” Hurst told us.
He’s the chair of Iowa’s Third District Democratic Party and the vice-chair of the state Democrats’ rural caucus, but he tries to talk health care across party lines.
“I try to help people differentiate between access to insurance products versus access to actual health care providers,” Hurst said. “And when we start having that conversation, then you sort of see the political walls, Democrat versus Republican, kind of melt away.”
He believes both sides are having a hard time understanding health care in general.
“There’s a lot of confusion about what an insurance product is or what these different models that candidates are talking about really are,” Hurst said.
And there are quite a few models the Democratic presidential hopefuls are pushing, ranging from “Medicare for All” to a public option that could be built off the Affordable Care Act.
And then for Republicans, there’s Trump.
He hasn’t fulfilled his 2016 promise to repeal and replace Obamacare after his efforts died in the Senate.
“Has it moved the needle from people who supported Trump that he didn’t keep that promise? I think what it did is it raised the question in their heads whether or not that was something that should be pursued or not,” Hurst said, speaking of Republicans he interacts with.
We asked if those same Republicans who were onboard with the ‘repeal and replace’ effort are now content with the current system.
“Yeah, I think so. Certainly,” Hurst said.
Political party aside, Hurst said voters have homework to do before picking a presidential candidate.
“What do we want health care to look like?” he asked. “And that’s the question I try to get to with individuals. And then politics can get involved.”
THE URBAN/RURAL DIVIDE
About 30 miles west of Des Moines, Iowa — a liberal hotspot that anchors Polk County — you’ll find the Adel Family Fun Center in conservative-leaning Dallas County, owned by staunch Democrat Bryce Smith.
“This [was] actually my first job in high school, working at this bowling alley,” Smith said.
Smith came back to his 5,000-person hometown after graduating from college. He bought the bowling alley five years ago and eventually became chairman of the Dallas County Democratic Party.
“I think, you know, for me, becoming a small business owner, moving back to the community — more of a rural community — and then having that proximity to Polk County, which is relatively more liberal, more Democratic, larger population,” Smith said. “Dallas County, which is a neighboring county, is much more red or Republican/conservative. But that rapid changing of that suburban/urban growth area kind of really puts Dallas County in this, like, teeter-totter between conservative politics and liberal politics"
The lanes were empty when we met up with Smith because a campaign event for former Vice President Joe Biden was being set up.
It’s common for candidates on the trail to make a pit stop here because Smith is the county party chairman, a job he’s held for the last two years.
“I thought that it was a great time to kind of use my energy and my passion to cultivate and re-energize our local Democratic Party and show that there are young people and there are progressive people who want to live back in our own communities and give back,” he said.
But remember, rural Dallas County is bright red. Voters here have supported Republicans in the last five presidential elections. While the more urban Polk County voted Democrat each of those cycles.
And that divide stretches across the state.
We drove to Democratic campaign events in different counties and spoke with caucusgoers about it.
At a campaign office opening in Burlington, Iowa for entrepreneur Andrew Yang, we met Deborah Bowen, a retired paralegal.
“We know that the western half of Iowa, they are a Republican majority,” she said. “[The] eastern half, where we are, we’re a Democratic majority. I mean, it’s all interconnected. But obviously, yes, there is definitely a divide.”
At an event in Boone, Iowa for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, we met Thomas Buelow, a student at Iowa State University.
“People in Des Moines are not affected by the same policy and the same things that farmers and people who live a hundred miles out from anything,” he said.
In the more rural parts of Iowa, protections for farmers and health care were two of the top issues we heard about when speaking with people.
In some of Iowa’s larger cities, caucusgoers brought up climate change and the economy as the biggest issues driving them.
Back in Adel, Smith explained it this way.
“I think some of the overwhelming topics that are talked about resonate in both urban and rural,” he said. “But the solutions differ on what the actual — how we actually solve those issues in those particular areas.”
As Democrats campaign across all parts of the state, Smith told us bridging that gap in Iowa for February’s caucuses could also pay off in November.
“We have to have a candidate who knows that they can go into California and New York and get those votes that they need to run up the tally, but also come back to the Midwest — Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin.”
DOES ELECTABILITY OVERRIDE POLICY PRIORITIES?
The Hawkeye State embraced President Donald Trump in 2016. He won 93 of 99 counties and beat Hillary Clinton by 10-percent.
That’s why it’s no surprise many of the current Democratic candidates we saw in Iowa brought the president up by name.
“We’re going to build a big, beautiful wall around the Midwest and we’re going to make Donald Trump pay for it,” Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar said at an event in Cedar Rapids.
“Who is the best qualified and more likely to beat this president?” former Vice President Joe Biden asked during an event in Vinton.
“No matter who wins this primary process, all of us will stand together to defeat Donald Trump,” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said while campaigning in Boone.
With that in mind, we started this election year off with a weeklong, 1,800-mile road trip across Iowa to explore what’s more important to caucusgoers: a presidential hopeful’s platform or their potential to beat Trump.
The Democrats we spoke with told us where the candidates stand on climate change, education, immigration, and health care is on their minds as the caucuses get closer.
But almost everyone said their top priority is just beating Trump.
“My main concern is that the candidate is strong enough to beat Donald Trump,” said Frank King, a retired salesman from Atkins. “That’s my main concern. And I think a lot of Democrats share that same sentiment.”
King was sporting his custom-made “Make America Trump Free Again” hat at a Biden event.
Then there was an enthusiastic Klobuchar supporter, lawyer, and former judge Renee Sneitzer Kooker, who was sitting front row at the senator’s Cedar Rapids town hall.
“I’ve never honestly wanted to admit that I just wanted somebody who could beat Trump, but that actually goes on the list of whys,” she said.
At the Yang campaign office opening in the small southeast Iowa city of Burlington, we met a mother and daughter who both want the president out.
“I would vote for anyone,” said Deborah Bowen, the mother, and a retired paralegal. I don’t care who is running in the Democratic Party. [Trump] has to be gone.”
But her daughter, Amanda, is more concerned about bringing change to Washington han just how electable a candidate is.
“Me, more than anyone, I think, wants to get Trump out,” she said. “But I think picking a safe choice just because everybody says that they can beat Trump, that’s not necessarily the right way to go because it’s not asking for enough in a candidate.”
When we drove to central Iowa for the Sanders event in Boone, we spoke with several caucusgoers who approached the idea of electability with skepticism.
“I think just being 100 percent about what you care about and going after it is much more genuine and probably much more realistically going to win, than just trying to appease who you can to get elected,” said Thomas Buelow, a student at Iowa State University.
But Jessi Turner, another Sanders supporter, told us the current president has changed things.
She’s caucusing for Sanders but will stop short of joining the “Bernie or Bust” camp because she doesn’t believe Trump has the nation’s best interests at heart.
“For these past couple election cycles, it’s been a lot more about who can defeat the other person than it usually is,” said Turner, who’s a veterinarian.
Back in Cedar Rapids at the Klobuchar town hall, Nancy Geyger got emotional when the senator talked about gun violence.
Geyger is supporting Klobuchar because of how grounded she seems, but she told us the overarching goal is to take back the White House.
When we asked her if she’ll vote for the Democratic nominee, even if it’s not Klobuchar, Geyger responded without pause: “Absolutely.”